Monday, 3 December 2018

Human Sacrifice - Jephthah's Daughter

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 25 November 2018

Judges 11.30-40 
Matthew 22.34-40

Listen to this sermon here:
A group of us from Bloomsbury have just returned
            from a couple of weeks visiting Israel-Palestine,
and I can honestly say that from my perspective
            it was one of the most moving and thought-provoking things
            I have done in a very long time.

The thing is, I thought I understood the situation out there,
            with the tensions over land between Palestine and Israel.

I mean, it’s not as if we haven’t covered this stuff before here at Bloomsbury.

One of our Deacons went over there a year or so ago
            to do voluntary work with Children in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem,
            and told us all about it when she came back.

And then we had an evening here at Bloomsbury
            with the Welsh singer Martyn Joseph,
                        the comedienne Grace Petrie,
                        and the Alrowad Palestinian youth drama group,
which finished with everyone on stage singing ‘We Shall Overcome’
            whilst holding the Palestinian flag.

And Amos Trust, who focus specifically
            on promoting peaceful reconciliation and justice
            between Palestinians and Israelis,
were our charity of the year recently.

And others have served as Ecumenical Accompaniers
            to protect people at risk by their nonviolent presence.

And going back a bit further we’ve hosted a Palestinian Carol Service.

And I think I know the political history reasonably well
            - I know what the Balfour Declaration is,
                        and the Israeli War of Independence, and the Six Day War.

I thought I knew this stuff.

And then I went there, and saw it with my own eyes,
            and suddenly I realised how little I actually knew.

And do you know what affected me most,
            to the extent that I frequently and unexpectedly found myself with tears in my eyes?

It was the unswerving commitment of the people we met
            to a path of nonviolent resistance, and peace-making,
in the face of unjustified and unprovoked violence and oppression against them.

I’m thinking of the head of the family at the little farm
            now known at the Tent of Nations,
who has been told he must surrender his farm,
            but who has a paper saying it’s been in his family for centuries.
He won’t move, he won’t leave,
            but he has painted a sign at the entrance gate
            which says ‘We refuse to be enemies’.

I’m thinking of his daughter,
            who told us about their protracted legal struggles to keep their own land,
and how their 1400 olive trees were uprooted one night by bulldozers,
            but how they just keep replanting the trees, one at a time.
One of those trees now has my name attached to it.

I’m thinking of the man who showed us around the West Bank,
            who told us of the time when one day he going through a check point in the wall
                        and was told to get out of his car,
            and was then hit in the face by the butt of a gun,
                        and who thought he was going to die.
He says that he will never hit back, but he will never give up.

I’m thinking of the beautiful valley with ancient vineyards
            and a monastery that makes very fine wine,
which one day soon may find itself the wrong side of a wall
            that will mean the people who currently farm the land
            cannot any longer get there to harvest the grapes.
And of their commitment to continuing to trade
            and bring much needed money to impoverished communities.

I’m thinking of the residents of the refugee camp,
            whose grandparents were forcibly evicted from their homes in 1948,
and who went to live in tents just outside Bethlehem,
            which became concrete bunkers,
which became a shanty town with no infrastructure,
            which is now the Aida refugee camp.
And their hope that one day, even now,
            they will return to their historic land and build new homes for their families.

I’m thinking of the children of that camp who play in the playpark
            provided by the Christian Palestinians in the shadow of the partition wall,
but who are sometimes shelled by tear gas grenades or soaked by skunk water
            from the soldiers in the watch twoer on the wall.

I’m think of walking through Hebron,
            and discovering that there were streets
            where some people were not allowed to walk anymore,
                        because they are the wrong ethnicity,
            and how those whose houses and shops used to front onto those streets
                        have to access their houses by ladders to the rear,
                        climbing in through bedroom windows.

And most of all I’m thinking of the Jewish man
            who sat and told us how his daughter was killed
                        when a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up in a market,
            and how he decided that rather than revenge or retaliation,
                        what he wanted was understanding,
            and how he now works with other bereaved parents
                        on both sides of the conflict,
            to bring a voice that calls for peace,
                        and which shows the futility of perpetuating
                        spirals and cycles of violence down the generation.
And here’s the thing,
            that is a hard message to hear when the injustice is so real,
            so imminent, and so capricious.
When you meet people who have experienced such pain, loss, and oppression,
            the power of words of forgiveness and peace
            becomes raw in its intensity.
But, as the Jewish father of the dead daughter said to us,
            what is the alternative?

And here we find ourselves at the question posed for us this morning
            by our disturbing passage from the book of Judges,
as we continue our anti-lectionary series
            looking at passages from the Bible you don’t normally hear preached on in church.
Jephthah is on a mission to right some wrongs,
            and reclaim some land.
He’s a Jewish warrior from the area of Gilead (11.1),
            and he comes to prominence at a time
                        when the ancient enemies of Egypt, the Ammonites
                        had been on an eighteen year campaign
            to oppress the Israelites and take their land.

The Israelites had come to the conclusion
            that the reason they kept losing to the Ammonites
was because they had been worshipping foreign gods,
            so they embarked on a purity crusade to purge their religion of any idols.

Jephthah, the disowned and violently angry son
            of a Jewish father and a prostitute mother,
is invited to become the commander of the Jewish army,
            to try and take the land back from the Ammonites.

He enters into a dialogue with the king of the Ammonites,
            and in an initial act of diplomacy asks why they have been attacking Israel.

The Ammonite king replies,
            ‘Because Israel, on coming from Egypt, took away my land
            from the Arnon to the Jabbok and to the Jordan;
            now therefore restore it peaceably.’ (Jdg. 11.13)

Jephthah argues back, presenting his alternative narrative
            about what happened and whose land is whose, saying:

"Thus says Jephthah: Israel did not take away the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites, 16 but when they came up from Egypt, Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea and came to Kadesh.
 17 Israel then sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, 'Let us pass through your land'; but the king of Edom would not listen. They also sent to the king of Moab, but he would not consent. So Israel remained at Kadesh.
 18 Then they journeyed through the wilderness, went around the land of Edom and the land of Moab, arrived on the east side of the land of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon. They did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was the boundary of Moab. (Jdg. 11.15-18)

And so it goes on, with Jephthah and the Ammonite king
            arguing about whose land is whose,
            who got there first, and who gets to live there now.
The similarities between this dialogue,
            and the attempts at diplomacy between Israel and Palestine in the present day,
            are striking and disturbing.

Eventually, Jephthah decides it’s time to act,
            and makes his fateful vow
that whatever comes out of his door
            when he returns in triumph from defeating the Ammonites
            will be offered to God as a burnt offering.

It’s quite likely that Jephthah had one of his animals in mind here,
            as houses in those days were places
            where the livestock lived in the ground floor room of the house,
but nonetheless the vow is rash and over the top.

I don’t know if you’ve ever done stupid deals like this with God
            - I certainly know that I have.
I can remember as a child playing with such promises…
            you know the kind of thing:
                        ‘if this happens then I’ll do that’,
                        ‘if you don’t do this, then I’ll do the other’, and so on.
It’s childish, it’s petty, it’s stupid,
            it’s condemned elsewhere in scripture as sorcery (2 Chr 33.6),
            but that’s Jephthah for you.

And, of course, the difference between him and me
            is that I did this kind of thing when I was a child,
            whilst he was a grown man, and lives were at stake.

And so he ends up killing his own daughter.

There is great irony here,
            because the Ammonites worshipped Molech,
                        the violent deity who required the sacrifice of children.
And Jephthah ends up sacrificing his own child to defeat them.

It’s one of those horrific, terrible, tragic stories of the Old Testament,
            which it can be hard to know what to do with.

There are a number of ways you can read this story,
            and there is a strong case for focussing on the response of Jephthah’s daughter,
                        who like most of the women in the Old Testament
                        doesn’t get a name of her own.

The feminist scholar Cheryl Exum,
            who taught Liz and I Old Testament studies many years ago,
says that we need to pay attention
            to the way the daughter is presented in the story by the writer.

She is first blamed by her father, as if it’s all her fault,
            ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low;
            you have become the cause of great trouble to me’,
says Jephthah, when he realises what’s happening (11.35).

And she seems to internalise that blame,
            not protesting the fate that her father has rashly decreed for her,
but simply asking for time to go and mourn
            before presenting herself for an early death.

Cheryl Exum points out that this canonised example
            of obedient female submission in the face of an utterly unjust man
ultimately serves a broader patriarchal agenda,
            and needs to be resisted
            if dominant and controlling religious attitudes towards women
                        are to be counteracted.
And I think she’s right.
            This story can too easily become a justification for oppression.

But I think the story of Jephthah
            also manages to deconstruct its own horror,
            and ultimately I find myself reading it as a parable of nonviolence.

Let me explain.

I’ve said a couple of times already in this series,
            that the Old Testament can be read
            as a series of thought experiments about the nature of God:
If God is like this, then where does that take us…?
            If God is like that, then what does that look like?
And so on.

And here we have a story that explores what a God who ‘does deals’ looks like.
            This story presents us with Jephthah the great deal-broker,
                        who will do a deal with God or the devil
                        if it is going to make his country great again.
            And of course he gets what he asks for,
                        even though he also gets more than he bargained for.

He wins his battles, he gets his territory,
            but he loses his only child,
            and has no-one to leave his conquered lands to.

The lesson here, I think, is that if you believe in the kind of God
            who makes this kind of deal,
then you’re going to end up in debt
            to a difficult deity.

The sub text of this story is therefore a question to the reader,
            and I can almost hear the narrator leading out of the page towards me to ask it:
What if God isn’t like this?
What if God isn’t a deal-making God
            who gives victory in exchange for sacrifices?

I think that this pathos-laden story of Jephthah and his daughter
            is asking any who read it
to question whether they are going to put their faith
            in a God who gives violent victory in exchange for violent promises,
or whether they are going to reject that God
            and seek a different God who doesn’t behave in that way.

It’s so easy for us to believe in the violent God,
            who takes blood and calls us to do the same.
This God is written through human culture from ancient times to modern,
            and drives us to wars, oppression, invasion, and division.
This is the God of nationalism, tribalism, racism, sexism,
            homophobia, transphobia, and indeed any ideology
            which demonises the other for their inherent characteristics.

The violent God calls to us down the centuries,
            asking us to sacrifice our own children
            on ideological altars of our own construction.

And I think the story of Jephthah is a story which shows where such ideologies take us,
            which exposes the horrors of such deals with God for the evil they truly are.

Jephthah has one further episode in his saga before he dies,
            and it’s equally shameful.
Unlike the Jewish man we met in Bethlehem,
            whose daughter’s death had prompted him to seek peace and reconciliation,
Jephthah and the men of Gilead set off once again to war,
            this time against the tribe of Ephraim,
            because apparently the Ephraimites have insulted them or something.
They end up capturing their latest enemies,
            and use a verbal test of a person’s accent
                        to decide who lives and who dies.
If someone they have captured says ‘Shibboleth’ correctly, they live.
            If they say it incorrectly, they die.
And forty two thousand Ephraimites die
            because they speak with the wrong accent.

So, to come back to the present day,
            and the battles in the land of Palestine.

We had a private audience with Archbishop Elias Chacour,
            who is the former head of the Greek Melkite Church.
He is a Palestinian, and welcomed us to his church.

He told us his story of how his boyhood village was occupied,
            and how this led him to seek a path of nonviolent resistance
            to the evils of occupation.

He was very clear that this is not about a binary situation
            of Israel vs. Palestine where one side are 'good' and one 'bad'.
Rather, he said to us that his message can be summed up in two sentences:
            God is love, and God does not kill.
His encouragement was for us to have the courage to speak those truths
            wherever they need to be heard.

And it seems to me that this is the alternative God
            that lurks behind the narrative of Jephthah’s daughter.
What if God doesn’t kill?
            What if God doesn’t give victory through violence?
            What if God doesn’t demand a blood sacrifice in exchange for righteousness?

Plenty of Christians still worship a God who kills
            - either his own child on the cross,
            or the enemies of the true faith,
            or those who don’t worship God at the time of the apocalypse.

But, I can hear the text of the Old Testament whispering to us:
            What if that isn’t God?
What if God is love,
            what if God does not kill,
what if God calls us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves?

What if this is the real truth of who God is?
            What if God doesn’t want us to make our country great again?
What if God doesn’t want us to put our country first at all costs?
            What if God isn’t on our side?
What if vows ‘to thee my country’ simply imprison us
            in ideologies of destruction?

What if God is always, irrevocably, on the side of the oppressed,
            the weak, the marginalised, the hurt,
            the grieving, the homeless, and the dispossessed.

What if all our attempts to violently construct our empires
            are simply deals with Molech
that will circle back on us and kill our children too?

What if the only way to stop children dying
            is to do things differently,
to follow the God whispered of in the subtext of the Old Testament,
            but made known in Christ Jesus;
the God who calls us to peaceful living,
            and nonviolent resistance?

What if this is truth?

No comments: